FAO footballers who want to move to Finland

We’ve had a massive increase in the number of people posting comments here trying to get attract the attention of clubs or agents. This has happened since the blog started, but it is getting to the point where they are taking over the site and I’ve decided to do something about it. The comments don’t have any effect really, nobody scouts for players using my blog so agents are not going to contact anyone who posts a comment here.

I suspect that the comments only open the commenter to exploitation, so from now on comments that try to advertise anything (including the services of a footballer) will be deleted. If you want to contact me, you can do so via footballinfinland ‘at’ gmail ‘dot’ com. I am not an agent and will not assist any player trying to move, but if there is an angle to your story I might decide to write about it.

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Popovitch moves in at retirement home

Valeri Popovotch has ended the on-off transfer saga of the winter by signing a one-year contract with HJK Helsinki. The Russian veteran will join his former Haka team-mate Cheyne Fowler in moving to Töölö, but Popovitch’s move has raised many more questions than Fowler’s. He occupies an iconic status in Finnish football, having moved to Finland in 1992 from Spartak Moscow.

Russia was one of the few places in worse economic shape than Finland at that time, and the young Popovitch was grateful for the security provided first at TPV, where he scored 26 goals in 48 games, then briefly at Ilves, where he got 3 in 12, and finally, famously, at FC Haka, where he spent his best years, played 323 games and scored a massive 170 goals.

It’s important to point out just how unique this makes Popovitch. Lots of foreign players have come to Finland, including some excellent players, but they have mostly moved on when it became clear they could make more money abroad. Popovitch never did, apart from brief loan spells at Heerenveen and Ikast FS, and Finnish football fans recognise how special this makes him.

Veikkausliiga has just lost its player of the year and defender of the year because Sweden offers more money, but Popovitch stayed loyal to Haka and showed his class over fourteen years, during which Haka won five championships. He is a legend, and until the last year it seemed as though he would be at Haka for the rest of his career and beyond, taking on coaching duties with the academy and generally turning into an elder statesman.

Unfortunately, the last year has seen that plan fall apart. Popovitch has not been nearly as influential recently as he was during the 2007 season, when he won them a lot of games by doing things lesser players wouldn’t even think of attempting. His excellent technique and cool decision-making around the penalty area was a joy to watch, with chipped goals a particular speciality. He only showed glimpses of that in 2008, and at 38 years of age Haka could be forgiven for thinking that loss of form was permanent.

There were other possible reasons for his discontent. Haka filled a big hole in their budget by involving Sedu Koskinen, a nightclub owner from nearby Pälkäne. Sedu had different ideas about how to run a football club, demanding prettier players to attract women to games, and foreign signings and celebrities to create a ‘buzz’. In a factory town of 17,000 people, the small potential benefits and crushing incongruity of such a strategy became quickly apparent, and rumours were rife that Haka’s established players were envious of the contracts awarded to fairly nondescript foreign players.

Mainstays of the team have moved on, with Fowler quickly signing for HJK and Lehtinen moving to Levadiakos, and it quickly became apparent that Popovitch was not going to accept a pay cut for more work. He left Haka in a bit of a huff, stating that he didn’t want a testimonial and his 14 years with Haka were now history.

There followed a period of speculation about which club would sign him, but the HJK move blindsided quite a few people. Markku Kanerva told FIF that he would like more young players to get a chance, but it seems that HJK may be moving in the opposite direction. The tension between making maximum use of the resources available, and ensuring the club can compete for medals, has led them once again to sign a veteran who acknowledges himself that he isn’t the future of Finnish football.

“I’d like to thank HJK for giving me the opportunity, next season will probably be my last in Veikkausliiga,” Popovitch told Hufvudstadsbladet. “The biggest challenge for me will be to stay healthy the whole season. HJK is a club that should be in the reckoning for both the league and cup.”

Markku Kanerva interview

FINLAND’S UNDER-21 team became the first Finnish national side to qualify for a major tournament this Autumn. They upset the odds, beating a strong Denmark team and a physical Scotland (Perparim Hetemaj refused to play in Scotland after having broken his leg there in a B international, although the Scottish team was quite different in composition for the under-21 game), before overcoming an arrogant but skilful Austria in a dramatic play-off.

The team had caused some excitement even before they qualified, as most of them play in Veikkausliiga for clubs that have nascent, small, but active fan groups. When the ‘little eagle owls’ played at home, the national team’s supporters club SMJK organised buses and flags so that the squad would be well-supported in their bid to make history. This would be unremarkable in many countries, but in Finland it has been unthinkable for football teams until relatively recently.

Not a single Finnish club had a European tie televised in Finland this year, but the under-21 side were shown twice. Finns like to see their team winning, and if that team is playing football, then they will watch football. So, under-21 manager Markku Kanerva, how does it feel to be the first manager to lead a Finnish national team to a final tournament?

We made a little bit of history, and I hope that this event has some influence on our football culture,” Kanerva told me last week. “I hope it won’t be the first and last time we qualify for a finals. Personally it feels great, for the players and the coaches it’s amazing, and now we’re really looking forward to this final tournament.”

The presence or absence of football culture is an enduring theme in Finland, and Kanerva has obviously internalised his role in its development. Every Finnish success has to be set against the background of the future development of the sport, with the caveat that Finland is learning about football culture and will – one day – begin to have something it can call a Finnish way of playing, watching and supporting the game.

The under-21 success undeniably played a part in fostering that culture, and Kanerva knows that his team have generated a lot of enthusiasm among Finnish football fans..

It’s really nice to see, and we need the fans to support our players. It was very nice to see that huge support even in the Denmark game when we qualified for the playoffs. Then the Austria game was fantastic, the support was amazing then. I hope there will be thousands in Halmstad next June.”

“I also want to see that kind of support in our league games. That’s the big difference between Finnish league games and English games. We don’t have that kind of enthusiasm in our league games, maybe because of the lack of a football culture. Of course we have some small fan groups, for instance Forza HJK in Helsinki, but we need thousands of them, with everyone cheering. Maybe it will come, and maybe we can help that by doing well in the final tournament.”

The draw for the finals was not kind to Finland, landing them in a group with traditional powerhouses England, Spain and Germany. With a squad of players currently playing in the lesser leagues of Europe, including a majority still based in Finland, Kanerva knows the challenges and opportunities of playing against players from the three biggest leagues in Europe, but is keen to play down the significance of the draw.

“It’s a dream and a nightmare at the same time! There are quality teams and quality players, and it’s very tough. But it’s a great opportunity for us to show how good we are as a team and individually for the players to show how they can deal with those players.”

“I don’t think it’s so different to play against Serbia and Italy. Of course there are more famous players playing for England, Germany and Spain, you can watch them every week on cable TV, and some of them play Champions League too. But still, I think Serbia is underestimated in this competition, they have an excellent team.”

It’s a very challenging group, but like I said, if we keep on going we have a chance. One of our slogans is “the sky is the limit when your heart is in it”, and that has worked very well. These lads have wanted to win every game. It doesn’t matter if we are playing against Bundesliga players, or whatever, they really think we can achieve something in this final tournament.”

THERE HAS been some excitement this autumn about the form of Teemu Pukki, an 18 year old striker who is playing for Sevilla Atletico in Spain’s Segunda Division. He has impressed enough to be called up to the full Sevilla squad for their 4-3 win away at Real Madrid, although he didn’t make it onto the pitch that time.

His progress through the Finnish age group teams has been slower. Pukki is still playing for Finland under 19s, although he did train with the under-21s before the home match against Scotland in 2007. Speculation has been rife about his elevation to the under-21 or even the senior squad, but with Finland reasonably well-stocked for strikers, Kanerva is cautious about his future.

We have quite a lot of options up front – Jami Puustinen, Jarno Parikka, Berat Sadik, Timo Furuholm. Pukki was selected for the home match against Scotland, but didn’t play in that game, and now I have the chance to look a little bit closer at him when we go to Japan in January with the A national team. That will be a young squad, and we’ll take a look at a lot of possible players for the finals.”

At the moment he is a key player for the under-19 team, and they have a round of qualification games in May. Of course, he has to show that he is good enough to play at the next level which in this case is under-21, or maybe even the senior team. I don’t believe he’s good enough to make the step up to the senior team right away, and we have to be patient and give him time to develop.

I think he’s not physically ready yet to play so many games for the senior team. Maybe for the under-21s, but as I said there are many options up front for us. It doesn’t follow that he sits on the bench for Sevilla and he is then automatically selected for the under-21s. He has to show his skills with my team, or with the under-19 team, or with the senior team, but of course he’s a very talented player with a lot of potential.”

IT SEEMS quite timid to be talking in those terms about a player who is only 18 but is playing at a high level, has played a full season for his home-town club and is generally considered one of the brighter stars of Finnish football. The chemistry of the squad has been key to Finland’s success, with close games against Scotland, Austria and Denmark decided by Finland keeping their nerve at the death. Kanerva understandably wants to preserve the atmosphere in the squad, and adding players to the squad is something that must be done carefully.

As a coach I think that everything starts from the team spirit, from the atmosphere in the team, and you have to build that up with your staff. That’s the basic thing. Every player has to feel at home when they come to the national team, and they have to feel that they can show their best when they play for Finland, without too much pressure.”

Of course in every game they have some pressure, but it’s very important that they have that self-confidence in the Finnish team, that trust in the team, and that they know that they can win something with this Finnish team. With a positive atmosphere you can achieve those little miracles.”

Of the other possible additions to the squad, Roman Eremenko would add the most star quality. Playing regularly for Dinamo Kiev after a disjointed spell with Udinese, the former FF Jaro midfielder is a mainstay of the national team’s midfield and adds a vision and composure that could make the difference when Finland come up against difficult opponents.

“He is a senior national team player, and I have to discuss with him about whether he is willing to join us. It depends how well he plays for Dinamo Kiev and how well he plays for the national team. It’s not so simple that I just take him. I have to discuss with Stuart Baxter and with Roman Eremenko. It would have to be good for him and good for our team. Of course he is a quality player and with his qualities he can help our team.”

I have no doubt that he would fit into the team, but it depends what he thinks. He has to be 100% sure that he wants to join us, and that he can adjust to the squad. That should not be so difficult. There is not such a big difference in the way we play and the way the full national team plays. In any case I would like to see him with the team before I make my decision.”

THE IDEA that players should take their time, learn the game, and play with their contemporaries is deeply ingrained here, and Kanerva is reluctant to endorse the Welsh approach of rapid promotion through the age groups. John Toshak did away with the practice of separate age group coaches, making everyone except under-21 manager Bryan Flynn part time. Flynn then had the remit and authority to promote players as quickly as possible to test the young players at the highest level possible. The Finnish way is somewhat more hierarchical, but Kanerva is keen not to dismiss the Welsh model outright.

“It always depends on the players. If players are good enough they should go to the senior team. Our goal is to produce players for the senior national team, and when they are ready, of course they go to the senior team. We have done that during autumn too, we played in Dallas against Mexico with an Olympic team, and half of that team was composed of my players.”

“If you see a really good talent, who would be useful for the senior team, then why not? But of course it depends on the player. Is he mentally ready, is he physically ready, is he skilful enough to play in the senior team?”

“I’ve looked at the Wales team, and I was surprised that they had such young players in the senior team, but they are ready and they are playing. If they are playing in the English Premier League then of course it’s not such a big step to move into the Welsh national team, but if our players are in academy teams or even reserve teams, like Teemu Pukki, then there are a couple of steps before they are ready to play for the senior team, or to be involved in that squad.”

How do you see this year’s Veikkausliiga in terms of young players getting chances and responsibility with the top two clubs?

“HJK did it a couple of years ago, they had to do that because they had some economical cuts. In a way it’s a bit of a shame (that they are not picking so many youngsters), but I don’t want to criticise them. Of course I want those young players to get a chance to play in the league, and to test themselves, in many league games. Young players can play one good game, one bad game, one good game and so on. I want to see which players can play a lot of good games in a row, who have a stable level of their performances.

“That’s why I’m happy to see those Honka players and Inter players getting a lot of games. Of course Jukka Raitala and Jarno Parikka played a lot more than a year ago, and I can get some kind of feeling for how they are doing when they play five games in a row. Maybe some clubs have to use young players for financial reasons, but it is good to see them get a chance all the same.”

Do you think HJK will give more responsibility to players like Akseli Pelvas next year?

“Antti Muurinen is the head coach and he makes the decisions…….Of course, they have had some quality players this season, Mäkelä, Roiha, Parikka, and it’s tough for Akseli Pelvas, but at some stage they have to think about his future and give him some responsibility in the team. Okay, he’s not so young any more, he’s 20 next year, he’s not a junior any more. I’m not sure what they plan for him next year, but I hope that he will get some time to play.”

“It’s not my job to criticise or tell people how to do their jobs. I can hope for something, and I want all the young players to get some responsibility for their club teams. That helps our national team, that they have played some tough games. If they’ve only played some junior games then the step up to international football is quite huge. So that’s why I hope clubs trust their younger players.”

“Of course, it depends on the goals that the club has. If they want to play for medals then they are probably a little bit afraid to use younger players, they prefer to use older, more experienced players. But I think Honka and Inter have shown that you can be successful and win something using young players, just like HJK did a couple of years ago when they got silver with a lot of young players, and of course I like the good example.”

ANOTHER issue for Finnish coaches is the seemingly inexorable drain of players to academy teams in other countries. Lauri Dalla Valle is currently the flavour of the month among Liverpool fans who monitor their club’s academy, and among Finnish fans who keep tabs on prospects for their national team. He recently signed a contract that will last until 2011, and is now occasionally training with the Liverpool reserves, but that is a long way short of ‘making it’.

The list of Finnish players who have failed to make the grade in foreign academies is quite long, and the list of successes is short to non-existent. It’s common for those players to come back to Finland to rebuild their careers, a path followed by Tomi Petrescu with some success.

Would you prefer that a young player played for a Veikkausliiga club for a couple of years, or went abroad to an academy at a really big club?

“It depends on the player and the environment. If the environment is suitable for the player, then of course, it would be fine. If he’s ready, mentally and physically, why not. But if he’s a little bit doubtful, and if he has a good role in a Finnish league team, then why not stay here for a couple of years, go to the army and finish his schooling, and then leave when he is ready to concentrate solely on football?”

“There are many examples of players who have done things that way, like Teemu Tainio and Sami Hyypiä for instance, they played a couple of years in the Finnish league and were then ready to go abroad after military service and high school.”

“I’m still waiting for the first young talents to become a real star by taking that early way by going to the foreign academies. I haven’t seen that yet. Maybe Teemu Pukki will be the first one, or Lauri Dalla Valle. Okay, Tomi Petrescu has been in England with Leicester’s academy, but he didn’t quite break through and came back to Finland.”

“It’s always useful for players to go abroad and see the professional life and what is needed, how hard it is to be a real pro. Maybe it opens players’ eyes to see that. The best way depends on the player, but still I’m waiting for the first one to come through the academies. Playing in the Finnish league for a couple of years, in a big role, has been a good route for players.”

If you go to Manchester United, like Jami Puustinen did, it’s quite a challenge to succeed at a big club like that. Would it be better to stay here and play in the Finnish league with coaches who are really working hard on your development? It’s hard to say which is the best way, but if you think historically then playing in the Finnish league for a couple of years has made our guys readier as players. Maybe mentally as well, they’re a little bit older, and they have still developed as a player to the level where foreign clubs are interested in them.”

Transfer news

Just a short post to plug Mika Peura’s excellent transfer page. I’ll write a bit more on the more interesting news in due course (Valeri Popovitch’s departure from Haka being the juiciest little morsel), but if you need to keep in touch with the ins and outs in the meantime, Mika’s your man.

We have a few interviews in the pipeline, as well as the usual navel-gazing and bullshit. The women and under-21s are the national teams of the moment, and they deserve more coverage than they’ve received thus far. We’ll endeavour to put that right soon.

Dominic Chatto

Correction: In the last sentence, I originally wrote that Chatto said ‘Finland is an excellent place to play football’. It should (and does now), of course, read ‘Sweden is an excellent place to play football’. I am sure that Dominic holds the same opinion about Finland, but he was explaining his transfer and so was talking about Sweden at that point.

Dominic Chatto finally moved to Sweden last week, signing a three year contract with Gothenburg club BK Häcken. His transfer has been complicated, with his former club AS Racine demanding a fee (which they eventually received), and Inter desperate to hang on to their talismanic midfielder. The price kept increasing as Chatto’s performances improved, however, and in the end Häcken offered Racine a good deal and Chatto a bigger league to play in.

The interesting thing for me when i spoke to him on Monday was that he claimed that he always wanted to leave Inter, because Inter were saying very different things until he actually moved. There are a lot of people involved in Chatto’s journey from Nigeria, and you do wonder how many of them have been looking after the player’s interests and how many have been rather more selfish.

His first club, Racine, retained his rights for a very long time while agents in Europe fixed him up with a club, and even before that when he moved from Racine to Heartlands FC. They have form for this kind of thing. They tried to get fees repeatedly when their former defender Olubayo Adefemi moved in Israel, but when he finally signed for Rapid Bucharest firm action from the Romanian, Israeli and Nigerian FA’s made sure they were disappointed. That didn’t happen this time, but it was interesting that Chatto’s agent, Luca Pagani, confused me ‘calling about Chatto going to Häcken’ with me being a lawyer representing Inter chairman Stefan Håkans.

Hopefully Chatto’s situation is now greatly simplified and his next contract negotiation goes a lot smoother than this one. Here’s an extended version of the interview I did for this week’s Helsinki Times.

It’s a long way from your home town, Kaduna, to Turku. How did you end up in Finland?

I started playing football at the Pepsi football academy in Kaduna. It’s a nationwide chain of academies where Nigerian kids have to go if they want to learn how to play the properly, and it was where I began to believe I could do something in football. We trained for two hours every day and i really improved a lot there. John Obi Mikel is a graduate of the Pepsi academy, but he played in Jos, not Kaduna, and I never played with him.

It was difficult at times, because you have to pay tuition fees there every month, but my family helped out sometimes, and occasionally scouts would give me money as a reward for playing well. A lot of the time I had to find the money myself, though.

I played there for four years, and by the time I was 19 I had grown as a player and was ready to find a club. I played for AS Racine for a while, and then moved to Heartlands in the top division. From there I was spotted by a scout and we ended up in Oulu, a multi-national group of 11 Africans all together! Only four of us were picked up by Finnish clubs, and the others all went back to their home countries – Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Nigeria.

How did your trial with Inter go?

Well I’ve been to other big clubs on trial, including Blackburn Rovers and Dynamo Kiev, so when I came to Inter I knew nothing was going to stop me. I played the first game and the coach liked me as a player and was ready to pick me straightaway.

What was it like to work with Inter’s Dutch coach Job Dragtsma?

As a player I’ve improved and the team as a whole has improved, and that’s the objective every year. You can’t compare this year to last year, because we played in a more Dutch style, because that’s how he likes to play and how I like to play. I like to keep the ball, play it on the floor, and move it on quickly. He’s a really good coach.

He seems to be good at boosting players who have had difficulties elsewhere, or maybe didn’t have the coach’s confidence at another club.

Yes, he always gave me confidence, and he always told the team how we have to play and that we are better than the others, and that he trusts us. He always told me that he had 100% confidence in me, and that if I was on the pitch he would not have any problems with the midfield. I always tried to give my best so as not to let him down.

At what point did you know Inter were going to win the title?

Before the season started, when we were playing in the League Cup, I saw a few changes in the players’ attitudes, and we were playing really well. We won the League Cup and when I saw that I thought we are going to have a really good year.

The first game was a little bit difficult as we had to make the transition from the artificial pitch to the grass, but we won 3-1 in the end and went from there really. We were winning a lot and after every game we really thought good things were happening – we had improved a lot and got used to each other, and by the middle of the season I was convinced we’d win the league.

Inter have a lot of good players, and at times the team seemed to have an almost telepathic understanding. What was it like to play with guys like Ojala and Hooiveld?

Mika Ojala is quite young, and I’m really impressed with his form as a player. He’s really developed this year, and I think he’s going to get even better. He always gives 100% in training, the same in games, and with time he will be a good national team player. He’s really talented and he will be a very good player.

Before games he is the only player I talk to about his movement, because as a midfielder you really have to get used to your strikers’ and wingers’ movement and runs. He was one of the players I could give really accurate passes to, because he is always in the right position and he always makes use of the ball in the right way, and of course he’s really pacy.

I would say Jos Hooiveld is my best friend in the team, and we are always together. People at the club call us brothers, ask where my brother is and so on because we are always in the same place. We really got used to each other and talked a lot about how to approach games.

It will be strange to play against him next year, won’t it?

Yeah. At first I was supposed to go to the same club as him, but things changed as they often do in football. AIK (Hooiveld’s new club) changed coach, and after that I didn’t have a contract offer anymore. I don’t really know what happened.

Was it ever an option to stay at Inter?

Well, I wanted to leave, because at this moment I’ve achieved something with Inter and I was the best player in the league. I felt that I needed a little bit more from football, a bit more competition. It wasn’t about money – Inter offered almost the same as Häcken – but it was just time to move on. I need to play for the national team, and in the national team of Nigeria they always want to hear that you play in a big league.

I want to play in the World Cup in 2010. I’ve been selected for the national team twice, the first time I was injured and the second time, at the Olympics, I couldn’t go because Inter had five games at a crucial stage of the season.

What was your best game this season?

I would say MyPa away this year. I had a free role, and I was able to control the game and made very few mistakes – maybe two or three mistakes in the whole game. My marking was great and I won man of the match.

Is it true that Häcken captain Janne Saarinen contacted you via facebook before the transfer?

Haha yeah, it’s true. He just sent me a message asking if I’d like to play for Häcken, and it went from there really. I’ve been to the club to sign my contract and I like the set-up, I think we can do something good there.

I should repeat that the transfer is not about money. Häcken is not such a big club and they cannot offer huge contracts, and like I said before Inter offered almost the same salary as they did. I just felt that I needed a new challenge and a new league, and Sweden is an excellent place to play football.